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Having spent hundreds of nights onboard ships on over 20 different cruises I am often asked how I decide what cruise is going to be right for me. The answer depends on a lot of different considerations. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be your 400th night onboard or your very first cruise. There are steps I take in this process that I always follow.
Step 1 – Where and when do you want to go
The first cruise my wife and I ever took was for our 22nd anniversary and we wanted the typical warm-weather-to-escape-winter sort of vacation. Maybe that’s the type of cruise you are looking for as well, or maybe you are looking for that once-in-a-lifetime Alaska adventure, or perhaps a river cruise is on your list. Clearly, itineraries play a big role in making that first decision of what cruise to book. This can also impact the timing of when you will go on the cruise as well since you’re not likely to book anything to Alaska in January, for example.
Step 2 – Narrow it down and pick dates
Once you get a general idea of where and when you want to go. you can start looking at actual options for itineraries and length of the cruise. You might have to consider how much vacation time you will have available or other family obligations you need to work around. If this is your first cruise ever and you have a tendency toward motion sickness, consider a shorter-length cruise in case things turn out badly for you. Our first cruise was only 5 nights for this reason, but not having any issues, we were terribly sad after our 5 days were over and wished we’d booked the 9 days!
Step 3 – How to pay for the cruise
We always try to arrange payment for our cruises using as little of our own money as possible. Most often we achieve this by booking through Chase Travel using Ultimate Rewards points. We have several cards with Chase that generate UR Points, and we pool them all together to use them for max value. Another advantage of this method is being able to pay for the tips and taxes all with points rather than cash. Other options are looking into whether a status match free award cruise is available. There are also often American Express offers where you spend so much and get so much back that can be utilized. Lastly, finding discounted gift cards for the cruise lines is another option for paying at less than full price. You can also many times book a less expensive cabin and bid to upgrade to a nicer one for less than it would cost to book the nicer one from the beginning. Be wary of this option since you could either end up “winning” the bid and having to pay it or not and having to stay in the less desirable cabin.
Step 4 – How and when to get to your embarkation city
As we have stressed again and again, you should always plan to arrive in the city your ship will depart from at least 1 day prior to departure. Lots of things can happen in travel from flight or baggage delays to car trouble if you choose to drive. If you plan to fly to your departure city you will need to determine if you can do so with points or BOGO (buy one get one free) certs or some other option for a discounted ticket. The length of the flight might also impact whether you want to book coach or something nicer. You might decide you want to spend a few days, not just one, prior to boarding your ship depending on where you are going. We have enjoyed exploring new places many times prior to getting onboard for our cruise adventure. You may also want to spend a few days after the cruise in your arrival city before returning home. We had planned to explore Buenos Aires for a few days after our 21-day transatlantic crossing back in 2022, but the World Cup final sort of got in our way a bit when it turned the entire city into one huge party.
Step 5 – Where to stay prior to and post-cruise
Is the city you will be departing from or returning to one that will offer lots of hotel choices or few? Do you have any free night options through various hotel loyalty programs or their credit cards? What about proximity to the port so that getting to/from the ship is a short or lengthy process? We booked a couple of cruises out of NY in 2018 and the hotel we chose was close enough that we could drag our luggage roughly 1 block to drop it off at the ship. After another Caribbean cruise out of Puerto Rico, we opted to stay a few days and enjoy the beach post-cruise and we ended up booking another cruise for the next year while sitting on the beach!
Step 6 – Keep checking and working on everything until departure
Most people think that once they’ve gone through all of these steps they’re done. Absolutely not true! Flight schedules change, hotels merge or leave partnerships with points programs, and people cancel or change their cruise plans making cabins available that might not have been when you booked. You may also find a new and better deal on your hotel or flights than you originally booked. All of this is why your plans should remain fluid and not fixed until close to time to get going.
Hopefully this is helpful to you in trying to narrow down your options and booking the best cruise vacation you can enjoy to the fullest. – René
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